Personal Creed 2017

For some time, I’ve been mulling over what I want to do with my life. That’s what 20-year-olds are supposed to do, right? When I was 19 it seemed like I could just ponder different paths and avenues. While I can definitely still do that, it feels like there is more pressure to just get on with it already. I’ve hit a whole new decade of demands and desires, and it’s time to jump on in.

Up until recently, I’ve always considered myself to be someone who doesn’t finish things. I definitely started a lot of things; when I was younger I started colouring in a colouring book, in my mid-teens I started learning sign language, I started diary entries and finished them early, and also never finished the book with entries that were left like mould in my head. I picked up a guitar and that lasted for a good chunk of five years, but now it’s collecting dust. What happened? I consider myself a motivated and passionate person, but I still end up thinking back to all of this guilt that comes with leaving a project behind.

It was only recently that I learned that all of this was okay, and that I was only doing this in an attempt to find something I was purely interested in and committed to. I didn’t realize it for a couple of years, but there are some passions in my life that had remained constant and I look forward to those passions outlining prominent goals in my future. I’ve learned to forgive myself for these unfinished things because I was searching for a sense of direction. I’m very happy I tried a lot of things because, by a process of elimination, I feel like I for sure know what it is I want to do. I want to make the world a better place.

It’s ambiguous. It’s hippie-sounding. It’s bold. Although it also sounds too dreamy, I didn’t come to this conclusion lightly. I came to it rather seriously, because making the world a better place should require a sincere amount of commitment. Frankly, at this point, it should take everything we’ve got. Like I said, I didn’t come to this lightly; after just a couple years of studying planning, I’ve developed a vague plan in my head for how I personally want to make my mark in my society. This plan has been one of my constant passions; one which I have not even once considered abandoning. I want to work in the public sector. I have to. I feel like it’s a life calling. You can consider me closed minded, to which I will note that I have experienced private sector work as it relates to landscape architecture, and I don’t see that work as part of my long-term goals. I want to work for government; I want to be the voice for the people. I need to do this.

If you look at my Twitter account today, you will see that I am actively politically engaged. This is only a response to my interest of what I want to become. This engagement in social issues surrounding situations like poverty, climate change, and accessibility did not just happen like the flick of a wrist. In my early high school days, I took a civics course as every Ontarian student does. I was instructed to find an issue that my city’s governance was attempting to solve. In addition to outlining the issue and the councilors’ suggestions to solving it, I was to also provide a suggestion about how to solve this issue. This was, I think, my first formal introduction to planning; my first formal attempt at making my community a better place.

Like I said before, my passions only recently hit me as a constant interest that I had not yet abandoned. This happened in a way that made me realize that these passions had creeped up on me over the years after that civics course as that constant interest. In grade 10, I participated in a walk through the downtown core of Belleville, my home town. During this walk, we discussed how the downtown could benefit from artistic changes or additions to the built environment. I and my class were bubbling with ideas – murals on that brick wall! A water fountain in this cement block! – and it was only a couple months after that day that I realized I wanted to learn about what seemed to be my current interest – how to develop communities.

I experience this interest as an addictive yearning to solve problems for the betterment of society. I frequent social media to find, for example, where pedestrian accessibility is impacted, and sit for a minute and just think about that situation in its entirety. I love developing my opinions of what cities are doing right and what they are doing wrong, and pondering what I would do to organize a solution to this issue. Over the years this has developed into something I am now determined to continue: making the world a better place by influencing community change as a public servant.

 

In the City’s Image: City Slogans and Mottos

To help guide my blog for the next month or so while I gear up for exam season, I’ve decided to start a little series of smaller blog posts which will discuss the images of cities around the world. Lots of pieces fit together like a puzzle to create a city’s image, and I want to examine certain aspects of this kind of puzzle and comment on some examples from around the world. This time I will be discussing city mottos; be ready to read about city flags, demonyms, and landmarks later on, too.

I want to start this one off by asking a question. What do you think of something when it is described as ‘technically beautiful?’ Something that would come to my mind is maybe a piece of art that is technically done very well in its composition and creation, but it just doesn’t sit with me very well. So, it could be argued as technically beautiful, but the personal connection to it just isn’t there for me. Something that you may not think of when you hear this term is Ottawa, Ontario; I bring that up because ‘technically beautiful’ was actually Ottawa’s slogan in 2001, believe it or not. If you cringed at that, then you would agree that slogans have an impact on the creation (or ruin) of a city’s image.

In order for a slogan or motto to effectively market a city, the use of language must be perfectly accurate. (Keep in mind that typically a motto is an historically created name, thus usually isn’t there to market the city but provide a small description of it. Slogans are much more of the marketing material.) Obviously, the word ‘technically’ was not the best choice for Ottawa. Though it may have been somewhat true to a lot of people that Ottawa is technical beautiful, the word ‘technically’ has widely understood connotations which change its meaning to something more sarcastic. A more definite word choice would have possibly been ‘absolutely beautiful’ or ‘almighty beautiful’ where there is no (or at least very little) room for interpretation.

A slogan isn’t just a marketing tactic that appeals to a city’s beauty, though. While beauty is an excellent thing to market (because no one wants to travel to a city that is ugly), a lot of cities incorporate their main industries and histories in their slogans. For example, Kitchener’s motto is ‘prosperity through industry,’ reflecting on the industrious heritage that has contributed to its growth.

Regardless of what city’s merits contribute to its motto or slogan, a city’s slogan has a big effect on its tourism and image as far as it is marketed. Below I’ve included links if you’re curious to read some silly, odd, or brilliant city mottos:

National Post – Canada’s Best, Worst, and Most Confusing City Slogans

City Lab – [American] City Slogans

Wikipedia List of City Mottos

Some favourites from the Wikipedia list:
Karawang, Indonesia: ‘Struggle starting point.’ At least they’re honest.
Valletta, Malta: ‘The most humble city.’ Well, not really now.
Falkirk, Scotland: ‘Strike one, strike all – easier fight with the devil than the children of Falkirk.’ 100% badass motto.

Katie on the Relationship between Cities and Loneliness

cropped-img_20160717_082352.jpg The Rideau Canal, Ottawa, taken by me on a solitary walk on a July morning, 2016.

 It’s been a while since I’ve last written a blog post. In the meantime, my classes and the search for a summer job have both been demanding yet rewarding. Since my last blog post, I’ve come across a podcast called ‘The Lonely Hour,’ with which I’ve explored the feeling of loneliness through multiple avenues. Some I’ve identified with, and some not; mental illness, motherhood, travelling, writing, and even dining alone are some of the topics  it explores. In one episode, there was talk of how cities can make you feel lonely. This is the relationship I attempt to explore in this blog post.

   In ‘The Lonely Hour’ episode 10, traveller Matt Gross recites his essay, ‘I’m Never Alone Anymore, and I Miss It.’ While answering some questions afterwards, the relationship between cities and loneliness was brought up, which inspired this blog post. I’ve included it below:

   ‘Do you find that some cities are more lonely-making than others? And if so, how so?’

   ‘Cities can be very lonely making because they’re cities – they’re places where lots of people go to be anonymous, to live choc-a-bloc with their neighbours, yet not know them. People in some ways go there to be alone, to be lonely, but also be in a position where their solitude makes it possible to meet people. So, I’m not sure if there are particular cities that do that more than others – the bigger they are, the messier they are, sure. It has to do more, though, with the particular culture of the country: whether people talk to strangers; whether people are looking to have conversations; whether they’re outgoing. Certain cities like Buenos Ares and Ho Chi Minh City are great for being alone! Everybody wants to talk to you, it’s wonderful! It’s hard to be lonely just sitting on a bench drinking a beer or fresh coconut juice there. But other cities, I don’t know, Chongqing in Southwestern China, that’s not a great place to be alone. Nobody will talk to you, nobody will pay attention to you. There’s too many millions of people, too many billions of activities going on for anyone to notice that you’re there. It can be a pretty lonely place.’

What is loneliness?

   In order to accurately assess the relationship between loneliness and cities, there is one very important word that should be defined: loneliness. I think loneliness is different to everyone, in terms of what it is connected to, what evokes it, and how to overcome it (if at all). To me, and from what I know, loneliness is the personal experience had when there is too much silence and too little engagement going on for too long of a time. It’s up to the person to define how and where those lines are drawn – I think everyone has a different threshold for accepting independence and solitude before it becomes lonely, as everyone leads a different social life under different circumstances.

   Everyone deals with loneliness differently, and it can be equally understood as a negative, positive, or neutral emotion. It definitely has stronger negative connotations, for example, in the thesaurus you can find ‘loneliness’ is apparently synonymous with ‘heartache,’ ‘desolation,’ and even ‘friendlessness.’ However, loneliness can be a freeing lesson that can teach one how to live alone, which is something I’m learning right now. Ultimately, it’s an emotion that is just as valid as happiness or anger, and should be given the same amount of attention.

   It seems ironic that cities are hot spots for loneliness, because there are so many people living there compared to rural communities. It’s quick for people to assume that where there are more people, there is a bigger opportunity for conversation and connection. Mathematically, of course, this makes sense. However, behaviourally, this isn’t so. At least, this isn’t true for every city on the map. This brings me to the question: why? How do cities affect how people interact with each other, and why do they have the affect that they do? Whether cities have a positive, negative, or neutral affect on human interaction, this seems to be due to a mix of reasons which all interact with each other as mechanisms driving human behaviour and influencing human emotive response.

   From my own observations, I’ve noticed that whether or not I feel connected to people in my community is a result of how the community is built, the culture of the community, to what extent I can be engaged in the community, and to what extent I actively engage myself.

Loneliness and the Built Environment

   I’ll start with commenting on my first noted element affecting human emotion: the built environment. I’ll specify and say that by this I mean how the community is organized physically, what physical amenities are offered, and where all of the elements of the community are placed with respect to each other.

   In my planning classes, I have learned again and again how the built environment can influence social isolation in a community. The example used time and time again that speaks to this sentiment is suburban built form. It is argued that suburbs influence social isolation (which can be exacerbated to loneliness) because of multiple reasons: they are homogenous and uninteresting; they offer no connections to meaningful destinations if you are not driving a car; the layout of the community demands a car for travel which isolates people from each other; and they are physically isolated from other parts of the city which offer an opportunity for community engagement and human interaction. I’ve included a visual below to help you understand why:

   Perhaps now you see what I mean about the lack of connections accessible to the individual when you stray from the urban form of the core of the city, which is often built in either gridiron form or some form offering a similar amount of connection opportunities (which I define as intersections). It is easy to see how the Warped Parallel, Loops and Lollipops, and Lollipops on a Stick forms don’t do a lot of justice for human interaction – these forms do not support a mix of land uses (residential right beside community stores, for example) resulting in a homogenous society where everyone only eats and sleeps in the community between travelling to and from work. Here, there is very little opportunity for community engagement such as neighbourly chitchat, except when you and your neighbour travel from your front doors to your cars in the driveway every morning.

   Of course, built form isn’t directly nor is it solely correlated with loneliness – that is to say, just because you live in the suburbs, does not necessarily mean you are feeling lonely all of the time. It is arguable, however, that you are greater subject to loneliness than people who live in city centres which boast the opportunity for multiple activities at all times of the day. Even still, the built environment is definitely not the only mechanism at play in affecting people’s emotions or solitude. Here I argue that the culture of the community (or region, or even country in general) has a very large impact on a person’s solitude and, hence, loneliness.

Loneliness and Culture

   In his interview on The Lonely Hour, Matt Gross mentions ‘whether people talk to strangers; whether people are looking to have conversations; whether they’re outgoing’ is a playing factor in determining whether a city is lonely-making. For the purposes of this blog post, I argue that rather than the culture of the country, it’s more the culture of the community that plays this role. (However, I say that as a Canadian in an ultimately multicultural national community – in a much smaller country such as Liechtenstein, for example, the culture of the country may be spread nationally. But this is just arguing semantics.)

   This is interesting to consider, and it’s different for every place. In your city, are people welcoming? Do you say hello to people passing by the street, or is it at the very least not too weird to smile to them? Are there lots of different ethnic cultures in your community, and are they culturally accepted by your neighbours? Are there events that you can participate in around your community which you feel wholly welcome to join? If you are actually playing along and answered these questions negatively, perhaps your community is subject to being more lonely-making than other communities which are more welcoming, accepting, and engaging.

Loneliness and You

   Even after the considerations this post makes, the biggest lonely-making factor is yourself (at least, this is what I’m arguing). A city or community could offer so many social connection points, social activities, parks and green spaces, a welcoming atmosphere, and it would still be you who is in the driving seat making the decisions of where and how to participate in your community, if at all.

   An example to illustrate this which I’m very familiar with is myself. I go to an engaging university through which I participate in some volunteering, I go outside a fair amount and take the bus at least twice a weekday, and I go out some nights with friends. I have a lot of friends in my program and in many faculties while also maintaining lots of long-distance friendships. I’m confident with myself and can easily chat with strangers, and the communities I’m a part of are what I would consider welcoming, interesting, and friendly. Even with all of this that my city offers and which I engage in, I still find myself experiencing loneliness at times when I didn’t even know it had creeped up on me. Is this the city’s fault? I doubt it – Kitchener-Waterloo is definitely a place with an engaging atmosphere, offering so many things to do and places to visit. Rather, my loneliness might be a result of some personal decisions of which the built environment and culture of the community were seperate. My emotions might be influenced by the built environment and culture of my community, however, these are not the decisive factors; I am seperate from the place in which I live.

   The idea for this blog post sparked after listening to that podcast episode, but it really came into fruition as a university student who is experiencing living in a relatively unfamiliar city on my own. Then again, I will be living in another relatively unfamiliar city when I move for my co-op job in the summer, then I will be back here in Kitchener-Waterloo for another four months, then off to who knows where for another four months for co-op, and so on. I anticipate the University of Waterloo’s co-op stream to be very lonely-making as I experience living in a new place every four months after this summer, testing relationships with all of my friends. I wanted to explore how cities influence our emotions because I’ll be exploring new cities every other four months for the next three years, and I think it’s good to prepare myself for the loneliness which that may cause.

 With that said, I hope you learned something new about how you are emotionally connected to your community, and perhaps how your city’s built form or culture has affected your mental health, if at all. To learn more about how people are approaching loneliness in cities around the world, check out the links below:

The Lonely Hour Podcast – Matt Gross’ Essay (text)

Talk To Me London – an initiative to curb London’s norm of ignoring passers-by

Edmonton has a Mental Health Action Plan – does your city have one?

‘The Lonely City’ by Olivia Liang (review) – now on my reading list.

   I take a lot of time coming up developing blog post ideas because I really like to put a lot of thought and research into them. I hope to have another one up before April, but March is a very heavy month in terms of class work, so we will see about that…

Katie on Public Art

Happy Holidays!

When I started this blog, I stated my goal of posting weekly. Apparently that hasn’t been happening, and it seems that a post around every 2-3 weeks is more realistic. It’s not due to laziness, but moreso the time it takes to answer the question ‘what do I write about this time?’ I’m only a second year student who admittedly only knows so much about planning to support enough content to write a full and worthwhile post, so I take this question very seriously! However, the answer finally hit me in the face on Christmas eve: write about the role of public art in communities.

The way I think about and perceive communities today was initiated by a walk in my grade 10 art class, where a public art activist brought our class downtown to see where public art could make the downtown space more friendly. I specifically remember standing on the Century Place concrete thinking what landscaping could be done to remove the gray that permiated through the downtown. Below you can see just how bland the space is with a lack of a particular focal point or even seating which could encourage people to stay and converse.

When you hear the words ‘public art,’ a lot of things might come into your mind. And, with how vast visual expression as a concept and as a realization is, your mind should be full with a bunch of things when you hear those words. Public art is a focal-point sculpture; a fountain; a paid-for graffiti artist or muralist who passionately draws life into a once-boring red brick wall. Public art is not limited to what you can see: buskers and street performers are also a valuable form of public art. Anything that appeals to your senses and enhances a public space through creative expression is my definition of ‘public art.’ (See this page for more information on the definition of public art.)

With that said, you can begin to understand the role public art plays in cities and their communities, neighbourhoods, and downtowns. Self expression is a natural response to experiences that we have in our every day lives, and is what drives humans to manifest their self expressions into what we deem ‘art.’ It can be asked, then, that if art is created from personal experiences, then how is public art created and expressed? Public art attempts to capture the attention and, consequentially, the emotions from passersby at a general level. There is something for everyone within a public art piece, whether that be the colour, the shape, the size, the texture, the positioning, or their interpretation of the piece.

With all of these interpretations and opinions of the piece invisibly floating around a community, the passersby are engaged in the space even when they don’t fully realize it. This engagement (if the public art was a success) attracts people to the space again and again, which is good for a downtown, for example, where people would revisit and the local economy would consequentially grow. Successful art peices promote conversation between friends — and, with an even greater deal of success, strangers — which makes the space a more interesting place to be.

It is okay to question why public art is so important to spaces. At face-value, it can seem like a question that can only be faced with circular reasoning: ‘public art makes places interesting, okay, but why is that important?’ ‘Well, you know, because it makes places interesting!‘ We initially resort to this quick answer because it is natural for us to want to be in a place that isn’t boring. Boring places make us unenthused, make us want to be elsewhere, and actively change our emotions while being in that boring space. We as people constantly want something to entertain ourselves with, whether that leaves us looking at news feeds on our tiny handhelds or stopping to look in storewindows or people-watching. We live off of our opinions of things, events, and people, and our short attention span reflects that. You may notice that when you are in a boring place (vaguely self-defined as containing what you personally perceive as ‘boring’) you may be annoyed, agitated, or just plain bummed out. This can be compared to an exciting and interesting place with conversation-pieces and entertaining events in which you might notice you are happy, engaged, and interested. Public art is important to spaces because of its effect on that space and on the people who visit that space. This, in turn, makes the space more vibrant, which could very well have a positive effect on the space’s performance economically, socially and environmentally.

To better describe what public art can do to improve a space, we will go back to Century Place in Belleville, Ontario. Let’s look at that picture again:

Ahh, yes, a drab concrete slab right at the major intersection of Belleville’s downtown core. This area is actually a major hub for pedestrians and drivers, either passing through, working, or spending leisure time within the downtown core. Perhaps you have walked through here and noticed how empty this space is – or perhaps you haven’t even really thought about it at all. It really is an empty canvas just waiting for something – anything – even planters to bring a little life to the space. Having been there myself, I can tell you the only thing for people to sit on in this space is one small and lonely concrete bench which is often taken up by a smoker not many people want to sit beside.

As someone who has a huge passion for downtown Belleville’s history, I almost take offense to the lack of public art here. Public art can and often does take on a civil service of historic commemoration, and I touched upon this in my last post. Belleville’s downtown has an intricate and interesting history and in the most traffic-heavy space in the downtown core there isn’t even anything that offers passersby a connection to it.

Take a look at some of the many projects that cities and communities around the world are doing to enhance public spaces for the passersby there, in hopes of making the space more engaging, interesting, and vibrant and, in turn, lifting passersbys spirits if even just a little bit.

An example of sustainable and purposeful public art can be found in Sherbourne Common, Toronto, where stormwater is cleaned and runs through the park in a visually engaging structure:

A very simple yet functional and effective design in Baltimore, Maryland encourages creativity and playfulness while waiting for the bus:

Even something like creative paving and lines on a space like what was done in Copenhagen by the Bjarke Ingels Group can offer a sense of creativity and engagement to people of all ages while just walking through a space:

Public art is more than just creating an engaging space for people and encouraging them to look, listen, converse, stay a while, then come back later. Public art offers a sense of identity to cities, communities, and most importantly their people: shoppers, residents, workers; all classes, all ages, all races and speakers of all languages. What is more cool than a free art show in your community? Consider what public art there is to experience in your community, and how it makes you feel. If your city spaces are boring, what can be done to create interest in that space? Maybe you’re not an artist, but you are the one who’s looking at and experiencing the art when it is installed — what do you want to see and experience in your public spaces?

Here are some links to consider as 2016 comes to an end:

The pros of graffiti

The case for temporary public art

Paying for public art (Ottawa)

Popular and controversial street artist: Banksy

Katie on the Role of History in Cities

blvlWhen I was around 12 years old, I found pictures of what certain stretches of Bridge Street East looked like in 1953 on Google Earth (the image above is not one of them). Since then, I’ve loved wrapping myself in research of Belleville’s history. It’s gotten to a point where, as I walk around the city, I can recall architectural histories of specific houses right off the bat, and I can tell you what businesses used to be in what buildings in the downtown core. Aided by old city directories, insurance maps, and pictures, I find it so addicting to learn what the city and streets used to look like; I love being able to appreciate how my city grew and developed.

When people think of city planning, it’s common to think of it in terms of the future. This makes sense – the word ‘planning’ naturally refers to the future. However, planning is so diverse, and it encompasses something I would love to take part in during or after my studies at UWaterloo – heritage planning.

It kind of sounds like an oxymoron, but heritage planning focuses on the preservation and protection of cultural heritage so that historic aspects of the city can be appreciated as the city grows and changes again over time. It is because of heritage planning that you can appreciate century-old architectural gems in your city, museums, and commemorative statues that reflect your city’s historic accomplishments. Historic preservation aims to preserve and celebrate the city’s (or town’s, or neighbourhood’s, etc.) identity.

It’s rather difficult to justify why heritage planning is so cool as someone who has a natural passion for city history, but I will try. As cities grow and expand, it’s important to reflect on what had influenced the growth of a city in the first place. It’s a form of respect that the city and its culture deserve. Without a sense of history, the city risks losing a sense of identity. Think of a city with no roots to ground it; a city that becomes a whole new entity with every change of plans. A city like this can not physically exist – it is natural for cities to have a story detailing its growth and it is the responsibility of planners to manage and celebrate meaningful parts of this story through appropriate and respectful design and policy decisions. A city without a sense of identity is a desolate place; such an empty identity would result in a lack of connections between the city and its people.

That being said, what does it mean to me to be a Bellevillian? Should this have any significance anyway? I connect growing up in Belleville in the early 2000s to how I could have grown up in the early 1850s, 1900s, and so on; considering all of the beautiful ‘vintage’ photos I have looked at and town plans I’ve read, I think that Belleville has so much interesting history to learn and I’m happy I’ve become a part of it as a Bellevillian. Additionally, I argue that your demonym does have significance. Where you grew up/where you live has a huge influence on your growth as an individual. Of course, to be a Torontonian, for example, is not the only aspect of one’s self. However, to be a Torontonian would mean you grew up in a very multicultural, dense, and evergrowing city; it would be silly to suggest that this has not had any effect whatsoever on how you grew as an individual and what kind of person you’ve become with whatever interests and whatever concerns. Your city reflects you, and you reflect your city.

Currently, I am in the process of learning what it means to be a resident of the City of Waterloo. I am definitely more connected with Belleville’s history (and, as a result, what sense of identity it offers) than Kitchener-Waterloo’s, but I still ponder the histories of the streets that take me to and from campus, the grocery store, and the bar (which is, to be honest, the extent of my travels here as a student). Currently, I consider myself more as a student than a citizen here, but I can’t ignore the fact that I live here and spend my money here. Still, my Waterluvian identity is carefully unfolding.

Now it’s time for you to consider what significance your demonym has. What role does your city’s history play in the significance of that demonym? If you don’t even know anything about how your city came to be, I encourage you to take a look. It doesn’t take a trip to your city hall to learn more about your city’s history; you can easily find Facebook pages or blogs that post vintage photos of your city’s neighbourhoods that are, at face value, just plain cool to look at. You may not find it as addictive as I do, but you’ve been warned anyway.

Below are some links to get you interested in (or at least acquainted with) Belleville’s interesting and glowing history.

My favourite image database – Belleville History Alive

The Glanmore Museum

Heritage Properties Belleville

Vintage Belleville and Area Photos